Don't be alarmed, but we're surrounded by rattlesnakes. Prairie rattlers to be exact.

Fact is, much of Montana is home to one kind of snake or another. Across the United States there are about 115 species of snakes, only 19 of which are venomous. Around Billings and across Eastern Montana is prairie rattler habitat - one of those 19 venomous snakes.

"All of these housing subdivisions, we are moving into their areas," said Dean Angell, an emergency room and flight nurse at St. Vincent Healthcare who has studied snake bites. "Look how closely people live next to the Rims. Most of the bites we see or hear about are up on the Rims."

Surprisingly, though, unlike a lot of other animals that urbanites sometimes complain about, few people call up the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks about rattlesnakes in their backyard.

"People probably deal with them with the back end of a shovel," said Allison Begley, FWP's native species biologist in Billings. "Actually, we get more calls from folks looking to move to the state who want to know about our 'rattlesnake problem.' "

The concern about rattlesnakes, despite their close proximity and widespread distribution, is somewhat overblown considering how few people are bitten or die from rattlesnake bites, Begley said.

"I do think that a healthy respect for rattlesnakes is warranted, regardless of how few bites we see," she said. "They have the potential to be deadly and should be regarded as such."

The last recorded death in Montana was last September when a Roundup man went to pick up a rattler lying in the road and was bitten in the hand. Earlier this month, a Highway Patrol officer was bitten by a rattler after he walked up a hillside near Columbus and accidentally stepped on the snake. Before that, the last recorded death due to rattlesnake bite was in 1965. Montana has been tracking snake bite deaths since 1954.

"It's not common," Angell said of bites. "We see a couple two or three a year."

Although he noted there are about 8,000 snake bites recorded every year in the United States.

The primal fear of snakes is very real, hard-wired into the human brain millions of years ago for good reason. Snakes are deadly. It's no accident that the snake talked Eve into giving Adam the apple and that in Freudian dream analysis and ancient mythology, snakes are correlated with evil. Let's face it, they're creepy.

But Begley is their defender.

"They're very much maligned," she said. "In general, their biggest predator is humans. They're viewed as a threat no matter what they're doing."

But if left alone, she said, most rattlesnakes would rather retreat than strike.

Even when they do strike, rattlers can be discriminating in how much venom they inject. The Wyoming-Montana Safety Council's Web site reports that up to one-third of rattlesnake bites in the field are dry, meaning no venom is injected. Angell said 10 percent of rattlesnake bites are dry.

"All rattlesnakes can control how much venom they inject," Begley said. "The rumor is that younger snakes can't control it as well."

When a rattler does bite, and does inject venom, a host of things can happen to the victim, Angell said.

"The venom fluid is a complex series of enzymes that affect numerous systems of the body," he said.

Reactions can include pain, swelling, edema (serious buildup of fluid) and tissue breakdown. It can affect the cardiovascular system - the heart, blood vessels and cause low blood pressure. The nervous system also can go on the fritz, with the victim experiencing mild seizures and at the extreme, coma. Blood cells can break down and the victim's blood can fail to clot, causing the patient to bleed to death internally or externally. Even when the antivenin is administered, the victims can suffer an allergic reaction to the antivenin.

So what should you do if you are bitten, or think you were bitten?

"Try to remain calm," Angell said. "The faster you move, the quicker you spread the venom."

If possible, the bitten area should be immobilized. Don't walk on a bitten foot or leg if you can avoid it.

"And then, rapid transport," Angell said. Get to a hospital or clinic as quickly as possible.

"The big point is, don't try to catch the snake," he said, which he said some people have felt compelled to do. "You do not need to bring me the snake. I'll believe you were bitten."

Treatment is administration of an antivenin that is derived by milking rattlesnakes of their venom and injecting it into sheep. The sheep's immunoglobulin is then captured for the antivenin. Curing a patient can take as many as six to 10 vials, Angell said, and in some cases, as many as 20.

Administering the drug within the first four to six hours is ideal, although records show that one victim went 12 hours before treatment, Angell said.

In addition to the antivenin, a patient could get blood and plasma transfusions, and likely a tetanus shot, since snake mouths are fairly germ-ridden.

Dan Helterline, 40, of Plains got bit by a rattler 20 years ago. He's always liked to capture snakes for "entertainment." But on this one occasion, he didn't have a very good hold of the snake as he tried to bag it and its fang nicked the middle finger on his right hand.

"It slowly started to swell up," he said.

So Helterline decided to try and administer a couple of snake bite cures he'd heard about. First, he tried the cut and suck method, cutting near the wound and trying to suck out the venom. When that didn't work, he had his friends stop the truck he was riding in and he grabbed hold of the coil wire while the engine was running. Helterline said he'd heard that the electricity would neutralize the venom, but that didn't work either.

For an hour and a half, he tried to discourage his friends from taking him to the hospital. But then he started having problems breathing, so he relented.

After he was admitted to the hospital, Helterline suffered an allergic reaction to the antivenin and went into anaphylactic shock, which is not unusual, Angell said.

"I ended up spending a couple of days in the hospital," Helterline said.

For awhile, the end of his finger was numb. But that has since mostly faded, he said. And Helterline still likes to catch snakes, even the more dangerous cottonmouth and water moccasins when he's down South.

"You've gotta be careful," he said. "But it's just a snake. People can get hit crossing the street, but they still do it."

So let's say you're walking down the trail and up ahead, you see a rattlesnake. What should you do?

"Turn around and give them the road," Begley said. "Keep your distance and give them a chance to get away. Throwing rocks or trying to move it yourself will just put you in harm's way."

The snakes are capable of striking out to one-half or one-third their body length. So a 4-foot snake could reach out 2 feet.

"That's the theory, anyway," Begley said. "I don't know if I'd test it."

Brett French can be reached at french@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1387.

Prairie rattler facts

Species: The prairie rattler (Crotalus viridis viridis) is one of 13 rattlesnake species, a subspecies of the Western rattlesnake.

Range: Throughout much of Montana. Also found in Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Nebraska, New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, parts of Canada and Mexico.

Habitat: They den in rocky outcrops or mammal burrows in arid grasslands and in ponderosa pine regions. They'll also be found along waterways because that's where their prey can be found.

Wintering: Snakes will den together, from one to a dozen or more from about October to April. Snakes tend to use the same den year after year.

Temperatures: Prairie rattlers will den when the temperature drops to around 42 degrees. They are most active at temperatures around 82 to 88 degrees.

Food: Rattlesnakes dine on small mammals, everything from voles to mice, gophers, prairie dogs and birds. Rattlesnakes will eat as much as physiologically possible. They will eat less if they take something larger.

Mating: Rattlers are sexually mature at 2 to 5 years. They mate in midsummer. Females breed every other year. They'll store the male's sperm over the winter and have the young in August. Prairie rattlers give live birth to two to 12 young that can measure 7 to 13 inches long. At birth, the snakes are capable of biting and secreting venom.

Size/age: They can get as large as 24 to 45 inches long. In captivity they've lived up to 27 years but in the wild a 15-year-old rattler is long lived.

Hunting: Prairie rattlers can travel miles to hunt. They'll use their olfactory, acute vision and infrared heat detection to track down their prey. They can be territorial about their hunting grounds, with males fighting each other for prime habitat or for breeding rights. Males will fight by rearing up and pushing each other down.

Myth busting: They don't hunt in packs. Each button on their rattle isn't an indication of years of growth. The buttons are created each time the snake sheds its skin, which can happen one to four times a year. They can also lose rattles. They don't always rattle before they strike. They're more likely to rattle when they know they've been seen and need to reinforce that they can defend themselves.

They don't hybridize with bull snakes or gopher snakes. Whiskey or other alcoholic beverages administered topically or orally do no good. Even a dead snake's venom remains poisonous for about 90 minutes. If a rattler bites another rattler, it will die.

Treatment myths: Cutting and sucking out the venom won't work. Applying electrical current, such as attaching jumper cables to a car battery and then touching the opposite end of the cables to the wound, won't neutralize the venom. A tourniquet can do more damage than good.

Harvest: It is legal to kill rattlesnakes in Montana and sell them commercially. There is no limit and no license required.

Imitators: All snakes will exhibit some rattlesnake behavior when they feel threatened. In Montana, bull snakes, and hog-nosed snakes (with blotched patterns similar to rattlesnakes) do the best imitation. The best way to distinguish a bull snake from a rattlesnake is by the tail - blunt with rattles is a rattlesnake. If you aren't sure, then assume it's a rattlesnake.

Venom: Snake venom is extruded from sacs at the back of the rattler's head, modified salivary glands. Snakes can control how much venom they extrude. Even without puncturing the skin, the venom can be noxious, causing discomfort, redness of the skin, and breaking down tissue. Skin that contacts venom should be quickly washed with soap and water.

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